These posts will largely be free-ranging and won’t necessarily follow the structure of Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. However, to get the ball rolling this post is an overview of what is actually in his book.
The origins of his book (according to Peterson) are two posts he made on the discussion/answer site Quora. The first being an answer to the question “What makes life more meaningful?” and the second being “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?”
The first of the two answers is some generic and not unuseful advice about self-examination. The second is a long list of rules that come without explanation. Again that isn’t unuseful – it’s a way people kind inspiration. There are common themes between the two, in particular, the fourth on his list “Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.” This rule is what I imagine Peterson sees as the basic thrust of his book, which combines his views on what is meaningful versus what is expedient but uses the ‘rules’ format to give him an opportunity to exemplify and explain.
Of the rules in his original essay, some are good (Tell the truth; Do not do things that you hate; Act so that you can tell the truth about how you act; Pay attention) some are bad (Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world) and some are silly (Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible.) Some though touch on the theme of self-improvement with a focus on the goal – such as “Imagine who you could be and then aim single-mindedly at that. ”
Peterson’s book* has cut down the number of rules to 12 and they are a mix of the self-explanatory to the more gnomic.
- RULE 1 / Stand up straight with your shoulders back
- RULE 2 / Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
- RULE 3 / Make friends with people who want the best for you
- RULE 4 / Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
- RULE 5 / Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
- RULE 6 / Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
- RULE 7 / Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
- RULE 8 / Tell the truth— or, at least, don’t lie
- RULE 9 / Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
- RULE 10 / Be precise in your speech
- RULE 11 / Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
- RULE 12 / Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
From the titles you can probably guess that largely the themes are common place advice – aim to be honest to others and yourself, aspire to be better, look after yourself, set reasonable but high expectations of your children. The focus is on personal advice and what you can do to make yourself be better.
The actual content of the book is something else and this is where it gets hard to review or sum up. Ostensibly those headings are the core message of the book. In reality, it is a hodge-podge of half-baked philosophy, truism and an attempt at a kind of pop-science writing. Mixed in are Jordan’s views on everything from parenting to the Bible to his tendency to talk about Jungian archetypes.
To say the book rambles is being generous. Peterson writes but does not seem to be reflecting on what he is writing. Consequently, his primary message often gets swamped by secondary points he is trying to make about religion or belief:
“Religion is instead about proper behaviour. It’s about what Plato called “the Good.” A genuine religious acolyte isn’t trying to formulate accurate ideas about the objective nature of the world (although he may be trying to do that to). He’s striving, instead, to be a “good person.” It may be the case that to him “good” means nothing but “obedient”— even blindly obedient. Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 102). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.”
This in his Chapter about comparing yourself to yourself (i.e. self-improvement), is a rather trite view of what religion is. Peterson sweepingly identifies it as ethics and cites a philosopher. Does he actually think that or has he just not really thought through all the ways religion is both more and less than that? I’m genuinely not sure.
Later in the same chapter he asserts:
“Does that mean that what we see is dependent on our religious beliefs? Yes! And what we don’t see, as well! You might object, “But I’m an atheist.” No, you’re not (and if you want to understand this, you could read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, in which the main character, Raskolnikov, decides to take his atheism with true seriousness, commits what he has rationalized as a benevolent murder, and pays the price). You’re simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs— those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulable attitudes and surface-level self-knowledge. Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 103). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.”
Well, that is an interesting and challenging idea – and I can even imagine arguments he might deploy but instead Peterson waves at Dostoevsky and a fictional character and declares the argument closed. You aren’t really an atheist, he says as he throws his own Rule 9 under the bus.
Shortly after that, Peterson declares:
“The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization (of Western values, Western morality, and Western conceptions of good and evil). It’s the product of processes that remain fundamentally beyond our comprehension. Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 104). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.”
Again, there’s certainly a credible argument that could be made there but Peterson doesn’t make it. He also ignores that only two pages earlier he was citing Plato as an authority on what religion is – a figure in Western civilisation that predates the influence of Biblical stories on Europe. Similarly, he’d casually thrown in a quote from Jesus that was taken not from the Bible but from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. It’s not that these examples invalidate his arguments but rather they illustrate how the book manages to be less than the sum of its parts. Peterson has opinions but they aren’t well structured and they don’t inform each other well.
I find it unsafe to conclude what Peterson’s views are or will be as a consequence of his writing. These are not well-examined ideas and they are not ideas that are in a string dialogue with each other. I don’t expect anybody to have no conflicting or contradictory viewpoints – that’s just a necessary consequence of living in a world that is more complex than we are – but I do expect a person trying to be a public intellectual to have spotted where his thinking is muddy.
To what extent passages like the ones above are genuinely meant by Peterson to support the rule he’s advocating in a given chapter and to what extent they are just padding or to what extent that’s just the way Peterson thinks, I don’t know. Safe to say though, that this is not a book of lean, tight arguments. Instead, it is a book in which figure and ground can slip back and forth – Peterson’s rules and personal advice serving more as a scaffold to support the more fragile opinions he wishes to assert regardless of their substance.
The best description of the book is that it is insincere in the way a drunk arguing passionately is insincere – i.e. without any awareness of its lack of scincerety.
*[I’ll say ‘Peterson’s book’ for variety but he’s written two books. The earlier one I haven’t read]